The New Mexican Executive

articles Business

Dr. Marc J. Ehrlich

As a result of the personality inventories I use for my seminars, I have been able to get a glimpse of the modern Mexican professional, both at the executive and managerial levels. This data shows an emerging shift in the way Mexicans operate within today’s challenging and changing organizational environment.

Before getting to the data itself, it is important to emphasize that it is impossible to capture precisely the nature of any one people. There are so many variations within any given race, culture, or nationality, that generalities can only be understood as statistical suggestions. Statistics offer only a glimpse into the population studied and should not be confused with any absolute reality.

With this precaution in mind, I would like to explain one of the inventories I use during my seminars. This inventory is called, “The Culture in the Workplace.” This questionnaire was developed by Dr. Geert Hofstede as a means of studying a large body of survey data about the values of people in 50 countries and three regions around the world.

Dr. Hofstede was able to compare these countries along four dimensions: Power Distance, Collectivism vs. Individualism, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Interpersonal Orientation. These differences have proven remarkably effective in helping to understand the culturally-based differences between people from vastly different societies and groups.

Over the years, this survey has also been used to understand differences in business culture between various organizations. The results offer insight into the people who make up that organization and, consequently, provide a new vision of the national culture shared by these individuals.

Power Distance

Power Distance is a way of measuring the degree to which inequality or distance between those in charge and the subordinates is accepted and expected. Organizational cultures with an orientation towards a large power distance will tend towards a tight hierarchical structure in which individuals know their place and the limits of their roles. An organization with a participative style – a small power distance – seeks equality in status and interdependence between the different organizational levels.

The original sample for this dimension, places Mexicans within a high power distance culture (scoring 81 of a possible 105) and North Americans within a relatively low power distance culture (scoring 40). This means that the typical Mexican will often seek out a dependent and mostly passive relationship with those in authority. Those Mexicans who have power, conversely, will work actively to maintain their status and control over others.

This tendency towards a formal and power-oriented relationship has led to two interesting difficulties with the typical North American executive. One the one hand, the Mexican is viewed as lacking in personal drive and initiative (preferring to allow the boss to do the thinking and directing). On the other hand, if the Mexican executive is on the upper end of the power scale, s/he will be viewed as being stubborn, rigid and unwilling to work cooperatively with others.

This perception, of course, comes from the Northamerican who tends towards a more participatory leadership style, one in which subordinates and bosses are expected to work hand- in-hand towards common objectives. The participatory executive expects subordinates and colleagues to “tell things like they are” without worrying about being reprimanded or losing power through information sharing.

The data I have on the “New Mexican” is quite different from the original sample of this inventory. After testing more than 700 Mexican executives and managers within 8 Mexican-owned companies, I found that these individuals have a definite orientation towards a participatory professional style, scoring exactly the same as the Northamerican sample. These results suggest that the New Mexican is interested in participating in those decisions which are affecting his/her professional (and social) life.

These individuals are not content with simply being told what to do. They want a more equal relationship with those in authority, one in which their opinions will be sought out and taken into consideration. A low power distance orientation is also associated with wanting greater independence in pursuing personal and professional goals.

If the Mexican, or anyone else for that matter, is not able to satisfy this need for participation, debilitating and unproductive power struggles are more likely to happen (a phenomenon we are seeing within the Mexican political community in recent times). If an individual is blocked in his quest for participation and democracy, the backlash will often lead to rebelliousness, defiance, and/or to passive aggressiveness (often expressed through an “inability” to fulfill commitments or doing only what is absolutely necessary to get by).

The independent and self-sufficient orientation of the typical Northamerican with this modern Mexican should enable both to work side-by-side, if there is a mutual respect and acceptance of the other’s style. Two strong individuals can learn to cooperate and coordinate their efforts if each one understands and accepts how the other is essential to fulfill one’s goals. If either party attempts to force their way or style on the other, their attempts will undoubtedly be met with resistance and an equally aggressive push in the other direction.

Degree of Individualism

The Individualism score from this test measures the degree to which an individual has a “self” or “other” orientation. An individualistic orientation reflects an attitude in which one prefers to take care of him/herself and is generally more concerned with personal achievement and autonomy. A group-orientation gives preference to belonging to the “we,” where individuals contribute to the success of their group in exchange for support, encouragement, and membership rights.

The original sample for this test, revealed that Mexico, as a society, has a strong group orientation. The typical Mexican was believed to value cooperation and harmony over competition between individuals. The Mexican culture was characterized as preferring loyalty over efficiency as well valuing the personal more so than the professional. Mexico was ranked 17th in group orientation of the 53 countries forming the original sample for this inventory. The United States ranked #1 in its individualistic orientation (with a score of 91 of a possible 100).

On my sample of Mexican directors and managers, while remaining considerably less individualistic than the typical Northamerican, the modern Mexican scores considerably more individualistic than before (an average score of 50 as opposed to 32).

This score reveals a new tendency in the modern Mexican to believe that efficiency is more important than loyalty, that everyone is expected to have and express a personal opinion, that self-actualization should be a major goal, as well as the belief that task-completion is more important than cultivating and nurturing relationships.

The advantage of having individualistic personalities on the same work team is that there is great potential for synergy. Synergy results from the collective efforts of individuals, in which each one offers his/her expertise to the project. Such coordination, however, is difficult to attain given the arrogance and self-centeredness which forms an inevitable part of an individualistic orientation.

The multinational team of Northamerican and Mexican executives frequently suffers from the presence of these two individualistic personalities. When one offers a specific point of view, for example, or suggests a specific methodology, the other typically resists what is perceived to be an imposition or an attempt to control. It is extremely difficult for members from individualistic cultures to find a way to share and cooperate.

Such difficulties make it more likely that power struggles will emerge between members. Each one “knows” better than the other. Each one sees the other as being the cause of the interpersonal and professional conflicts which may be affecting the organization.

If one of these executives has organizational power over the other, the individualistic tendencies of the subordinate will often lead to passive-aggressive attempts to maintain a personal sphere of control and influence. These passive-aggressive maneuvers may take the form of “forgetting,” not fulfilling one’s commitment (“Oh, I sent the information you requested by email. You mean you haven’t received it yet?”), and/or excessive and oftentimes ineffective criticism of the other’s work and way of relating to others (“In the United States, we developed a mor e effective system for doing that. We stopped doing it that way years ago” or “Here in Mexico, that just wouldn’t work”).

The need to participate (remember the New Mexican reveals a strong participative style) along with an individualistic orientation may combine to form a self-sufficient and self- motivated executive, one who wants to become involved in the decisions which are affecting his/her life.

If, on the other hand, the Mexican executive is blocked in his/her ability to participate or finds that his/her opinions are ignored, there is a good chance that these personality components will combine to form a defiant and rebellious way of working or generate a sense of apathy and indifference.

The Need for Certainty

The Need for Certainty scale of the Culture in the Workplace Inventory measures the extent to which people of a particular culture prefer unstructured, risky, ambiguous, or unpredictable situations (low need for certainty); or, on the other hand, how much they would rather live by rules, regulations, and controls (high need for certainty). Organizations characterized by a high need for certainty are generally structure-oriented, have a preference for clear codes of behavior and management practices, and are intolerant of deviations from the norm. Organizations which operate with a low need for certainty are risk-oriented, encourage individuals to take the initiative, and provide their employees with less structure and support.

On the original sample, Mexico scored 82 on this scale, reflecting a strong need for certainty. In my sample of Mexican executives, the average score on this scale was 56, revealing a significantly lower need for certainty and structure than before.

Executives from the United States scored 42 on this scale, revealing a cultural ability to deal with risk and ambiguity. There is a tendency within such cultures to value and expect a divergence of opinions and ways of working. It is generally believed within such cultures that no one person or group has a monopoly on truth and that truly creative solutions stem from such divergence.

While New Mexicans are much more comfortable with uncertainty, they are still considerably more conservative and structure-bound than Northamericans. The New Mexican is still more ceremonial and concerned about protocol than the American ex-pat. There is also a greater tendency to be distrusting of the foreigner in Mexico and to be more likely to consider one’s own beliefs and values as being “better” than those of others. More importantly, from an organizational standpoint, the need for certainty is associated with the belief that information is power, leading to a general unwillingness to share what one knows.

The need to hold onto power within the Mexican culture was revealed in a recent study at the Iberoamericano University. One hundred and eighty nine countries were studied to determine the ease with which information could be obtained from the government. Mexico ranked 182nd of the 189 countries studied. Only governments within such countries as Libya, North Korea, and China held a tighter reign on information.

This finding highlights the fact that the Mexican organization is changing, despite the continuance of a more formalized and conservative profile within the public sector. To the extent that the Mexican hierarchy resists the influx of new ideas and approaches from within its ranks (taking into consideration a greater individualism and need for participation of the New Mexican), a greater pressure will develop to break open the system.

Despite this changing tendency of the Mexican executive, the belief that information is power within Mexican organizations is still one of the more troublesome points for the Northamerican executive. The typical Northamerican executive comes from a culture in which information is considered to be a part of the public domain and not the sole property of any one individual or sector. If information is needed from another department within the organization, for instance, it is expected that such information would be shared openly in order to get the job done. Information sharing in the Mexican organization, unfortunately, still leaves much to be desired.

One of the more frequent complaints of the Mexican executives who have taken my team- building seminar has also focused on the difficulty of obtaining accurate, reliable, and timely information on the events and activities which affect their professional life. The New Mexican also expects greater access to information and resents the difficulty in opening up the channels of communication.

While the New Mexican is noticeably more comfortable with the ambiguity in his/her life, there is still a definite need to reduce such uncertainty. Given the fact that uncertainty is an inevitable and ubiquitous part of life in Mexico, this need for certainty will continue to provoke a generalized lack of well-being within the Mexican. This distress will often manifest itself in physical ailments (which are often easier to deal with than the psychological ones), a tendency to complain, as well as an overall sense of distrust and pessimism.

Interpersonal Orientation

The last of the four dimensions of the Culture in the Workplace inventory measures the interpersonal orientation of the national and organizational culture. This dimension, for example, measures the degree to which organizations foment an emphasis on task behavior, efficiency, and results as opposed to protecting relationships and emphasizing the quality of life of its employees. A task-orientation reinforces assertiveness and competition while a relationship orientation focuses on nurturance, a concern for harmony, and doing what is necessary to make the other feel comfortable. The task-oriented manager, for instance, tends to be decisive, “aggressive,” and a logical decision maker. The relationship-oriented manager tends to be intuitive, more likely to search for consensus, and concerned about developing his/her subordinates.

On the original sample, executives from Mexico scored 69 out of a possible 95 and the United States scored 62, revealing two national cultures with a task-related orientation. In other words, work-related tasks for both cultures are more important that protecting the feelings of others. If something has to be done, it has to be done, whether you like it or not.

This has been one of the more surprising characteristics of the Mexican executive. Many people, including Mexicans, assume that the Mexican executive is much more relationship- oriented than his Northamerican counterpart. It is widely accepted that Mexicans are affectionate, prone to small talk (even during business meetings), and are generally warm and personable. All this is mostly true, but not on the job. Mexican executives tend to be as hard- nosed about their work as the typical executives from the States.

Curiously enough, many foreign executives complain that the Mexican is anything but task- oriented—that things just can’t get done here. Any lack of activity, however, is not a reflection of a non-task orientation. It is often the result of other influences within the work environment such as bad habits, excessive permissiveness, passive-aggressiveness, the lack of organizational incentives to work more efficiently or successfully, or departmental pressures to maintain, or accept, a below-par performance. Within certain multinational teams, some Mexicans have expressed resentment or jealousy over the ex-pat financial packages and the special treatment frequently offered to the foreigner. At times, this situation creates an unconscious desire to resist the foreigner’s attempts to get things done.

The Mexican executives I have worked with in my teambuilding seminars reveal a significantly stronger orientation towards relationships than the original sample (an average score of 49 as opposed to 69). As with each of the other dimensions on this inventory, this offers both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the Mexican executive is becoming somewhat more concerned about the impact of organizational policy and strategies on the individual’s well-being. There is a growing awareness that the individual must find personal satisfaction in what s/he is doing at work in order to be as productive and committed as possible.

Within the Mexican organization, people want to receive recognition and appreciation for their efforts, be treated in a consistent and congruent manner (remember, the Mexican executive is searching for greater participation within the organization), given a fair opportunity to ascend within the company, and be provided with the training necessary to do their jobs successfully.

The bad news of this relationship orientation is that the New Mexican executive is currently operating within organizations in which there are many old-guard leaders. These old-guard leaders will tend to be too hierarchical, too authoritative, and too rigid to address the modern executives’ calls for greater attention to the issues mentioned above. When these issues are ignored and when the individual is made to feel that s/he is just another cog in the organizational wheel, there is a risk that people will respond with resentment, apathy, or pessimism—reactions that reduce the opportunity for organizational success.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Dr. Marc J. Ehrlich © 2008
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